Letters

Dear PW:

Thanks for helping me relax a little bit about office appearances.

I used to be embarrassed about needing even a plain ordinary cushion on my steno chair. Then, when they moved me upstairs and put me in front of the IBM console, it became a rubber doughnut, and now it's two doughnuts on my chair. I was about to agree to embarrassing surgery when I read your last issue of Processed World. going to worry about 40K rances so much. I'm going to continue to bring my rubber doughnuts to work, and I don't care who watches me perform this ritual, my putting the doughnuts, down and sitting in comfort. If it becomes five doughnuts, they'll have to raise the console because my legs are too long for a shorter chair.

C.R., Saratoga CA

P.S. The story "Prelude" by Christopher Winks, is a gem. By the way, I thought you had succeeded in helping out Blue Shield. I pictured them sitting back and reading Processed World and garbaging the mail. But I'll be damned if their computer still isn't working, because the same day your letter came I received a printout from them about why they couldn't pay for my last two office visits, dammit, Keep trying.

Dear Processed World,

Where there is a need for sabotage, it's so easy just to put an Out of Order sign on the xerox machine...

Paper courtesy AT&T.

Love, M (SF)

Dear Processed Word,

Your issue #4 gave me more laughs than anything I have read since the IWW pamphlets. You seem to be hung up in your development somewhere in the '20s, where an intelligent being could still believe Marxist bullshit.

Fantasies about sabotaging computers, fighting work quotas and assassinating bosses illustrate your failure to understand what the world is all about. Here are a few pointers that just might help:

1. Jobs are not created to provide employment. They are created to supply a service or product to someone willing to pay for that service or product.

2. All wages, benefits, profits, tools, equipment, supplies, and workplaces must be paid for out of the sales price of the goods or services.

3. If the customer can get it cheaper or better somewhere else, you lose the business (and your job). (This is the "Production for need" you desire, without the bureaucracy your scheme would require).

4. However demeaning and ill-paid you consider your job, somewhere there is someone who will cheerfully do it for half your price.

5. With today's instant communication, it doesn't matter where a company locates the clerical staff.

Denigrate if you must the "Childish" $50,000 a year executive, but realize that it may be only his childish desire to live in Frisco rather than in Colorado or Korea that keeps your job around.

On that great day when you smash the VDT's and hold the files hostage, you will suddenly find as the air traffic controllers did that society is not impressed with your tantrums. It is true that a concerted labor uprising can break a company. It has happened before, and it will happen again as long as we have people who, as we said in the old army, shit in their own mess kits. But a bankrupt company pays no wages, so where are you?

But if you can't fight business and you can't fight the economy, what can you do to improve your situation? I'm glad you asked.

1. Start out by making yourself worth more to your company than some warm body off the street, then diversify your skill enough to avoid locking in one narrow slot.

2. Your rationalization for ripping off the company is the same one used by the executive for making his secretary fuck for her job. You both feel undercompensated and so you pick up a few extra benefits. Knock it off.

3. When asking for a raise, forget what you "need". Everyone needs more. Talk instead of your proven value to the company, and if they refuse to pay for that, go elsewhere even if it means taking your precious tail onto a paper route or a janitor's job. If you are not worth what you are getting, keep quiet and hope the company doesn't find out.

4. Don't fuck your boss for a raise. Not everyone can do 60 WPM error free, but the chances are that he can hire a better lay. Stick with what you do best, if anything.

If the burden of applying yourself to your job so the customer is assured the best deal for the money does not appeal to you, then fuck, snivel, whine, cheat, steal and bullshit your way through life, because you are nothing but a fucking sniveling whining cheating thieving bullshitter, but keep quiet about it cause we already have more of them than we need.

Walter E. Wallis
Wallis Engineering
1954-R Old Middlefield Way
Mountain View, CA 94306

We encourage our readers to write directly to Mr. Wallis (send us a copy!). Here's one of our responses:

The idiocies of Mr. Wallis are too numerous to be dealt with here. But the bumptious, arrogant tone of his letter, and some of the half-truths it contains, are worth attention for two reasons. First, they reflect attitudes and platitudes regrettably wide spread among workers as well as the like of Mr. Wallis. Second, they express all too accurately the current relationship of forces between workers and business, at least in most of the world. Needless to say, these reasons are closely connected.

Let's begin with Mr. Wallis' economic notions, which are a cross between high-school Civics text and corner grocer. Mr. Wallis, with quaint stubbornness, asserts that market competition brings about "production for need". The reverse is true. The gap between profitability and real human need — for properly-grown and nutritious food, comfortable and spacious housing, efficient and safe transport and energy generation, creative and satisfying work — has never yawned wider. Two-thirds of the world's population are badly-housed and malnourished. Seven-eighths of its workforce spend their lives in exhausting, mindless and frequently useless toil. At the same time, vast sectors of the global economy are devoted to the creation and satisfaction of "needs" like armaments, nuclear power plants and the private automobile.

More compelling are Mr. Wallis' arguments for worker passivity in the face of capital's imperatives. "... You can't fight business and you can't fight the economy," he crows — because if we do the company will either go broke or leave town. At present, more U.S. companies are going broke than at any time since the thirties, though seldom because of employee demands. Meanwhile, larger corporations are indeed moving their industrial operations to low-wage areas like Latin America and South-East Asia. And in fact, the threat of mass layoffs because of bankruptcy or relocation has been remarkably successful in bringing U.S. and Western European workers back into line.

Traditional labor unions have proven completely incapable of dealing with this — except as active enforcers of management demands. Processed World is arguing for a new, offensive approach — for breaking out of the legalistic "labor" framework and creating directly-democratic, autonomous organization that cuts across the lines of income, occupation and (eventually) nation. Moreover, while Mr. Wallis' class currently has the upper hand, there are encouraging signs. The workers of San Juan, Seoul, Singapore and Soweto are beginning to resist in earnest. What if they were to force the multinationals to pay them San Francisco wages? And in Western Europe, a generation of youth has appeared that is openly contemptuous of the miserable choices offered it, and prefers to fight directly for money, free time, and the space to enjoy both.

Underlying Mr. Wallis' bullying, patronizing style is the mistaken certainty that working-class people are incapable of constructive self-organization. He concedes that "a concerted labor uprising can break a company." But he prefers to forget that "concerted labor uprisings" have also broken government after government during this century, and have several times challenged the fundamental relationships governing this society — the state and the wage system. Over and over again — in Russia and Germany in 1917-21, Spain in 1936-37, Hungary in 1956, Portugal in 1974-75, and most recently in Poland during the last two years — workers have begun taking over social power and running production and distribution for their own purposes — without a bureaucracy. That these revolutions were "lost", crushed in blood, undermined by their own hesitations and lack of self-confidence, is not the point. The present order can be shoved aside by the new, freely cooperative and communal society already latent within it. The means and the necessity for this transformation now exist worldwide, in more profusion than ever before.

Mr. Wallis, rather than contemplating such possibilities, understandably prefers to give us vulgar and condescending advice on how to "get ahead" in a world marching in lockstep toward the abyss. Let us not regret either his stupidity or his repulsiveness. Both will make it easier when the time comes.

Louis Michaelson

Dear PW,

I would like to submit more observations on the daily life of a middle-aged secretary. It's all very hard, really, that daily life. It so often demands more than I can give and takes so much that my free time is spent trying to establish continuity between who I am and what I must be. Who I am means that I must establish and maintain human relationships. What I must be makes that dangerous and painful. You know how it is. And as they say on the street, you've got to keep three steps ahead because they keep pushing you two steps back.

-J. Gulesian, SF

Dear Processed World,

It's been aeons since I wrote you about the unions — I appreciate your reply and the 2 copies of Processed World. I found it lovely, charming, beautiful, painful, tragic, hopeful. I should have responded long ago, but my despondence has superceded my ability to respond; I feel as though I am being beaten senseless.

I appreciate your perspective (i.e. that represented by "P.W.") on the unions — I see a great foresight, and seeking for the truth. I am, unfortunately — (? ) — a grasper at straws — anything — to pull myself out of the morass of anonymity of demeaning, slavish work places. I am also a dreamer, my dreams keep me alive in the pit. So when the hopelessness overcomes me, I dream of a little boy wearing a T-shirt that says "Not to try is worse.

-L.T., SF

Dear Processed World,

RE: Article in PW #4 on SSEU and the Welfare Department.

As a firm believer that history should be written by as many of those that made it as possible, I feel compelled to speak out my analysis of that huge elephant, the San Francisco Welfare Department of the late '60s and early '70s. I spent 6½ years of my life internalizing and externalizing the many conflicts rampant in that institution where hippies, acid heads, and white middle class radicals represented the Establishment to unemployed minorities, where workers were oppressed by gay and Black supervisors before the rest of the country was out of the closet or ghettos. Where social workers attempted to cut reams of red tape before it strangled them as well.

Unfortunately, it did strangle most of us, to some degree, and it certainly strangled the SSEU which no longer exists. The question is why? What could have been done differently? What did we learn that can help us now?

First of all, let me present my bias. I was in the SEIU, first in Local 400 (the Municipal Employees Union of 8,000), then in Local 535 (Social Service Union). I was politically naive upon arriving on the SF scene, but I had already dismissed the idea of social work being socially relevant back in the Midwest when I saw that the last thing the Poverty Program was set up by the Kennedys to do was to eliminate poverty! Of the poor, that is. I'd never had a health plan, a paid vacation, or a grievance procedure although I was 25 and had worked since I was 16.

In my first month on the job I was confronted with joining one of the two unions: SSEU which was anti-establishment, anti-authority, anti-organization, for individual rights (sounded like Barry Goldwater on this issue!), and gave good parties. On the other hand there was the SEIU, part of George Meany's AFL-CIO, bureaucratic, in bed with our boss — Joe Alioto, but which did something akin to "collective bargaining," and was responsible for a health plan, paid vacations, and a grievance procedure that even SSEU used and enjoyed. It was to me a choice between power (tho it be corrupt) and "feeling good" (tho not totally un-corrupt). I wanted both. So I joined the SEIU and went to SSEU parties.

During my 6 1/2 years there I joined hundreds of my co-workers (including United Fronts with SSEUers) in job actions, demonstrations, agit prop and informal occupations. We won things like the right to wear jeans and see-through blouses, bulletin boards, and carved out loopholes for our clients to go through until the then-governor Reagan or the Democrats filled them with concrete. We had fun, we protested, and we enjoyed our after-hour escapes

As part of the SEIU I went through 3 strikes, watched many SSEUers cross our picket line, while some walked the picket line with us. (They never had an official position on a strike, it would violate their principle of individual decision making.) We got sold out 3 times, not directly by our union officials but by their superiors in the Teamsters, Labor Council and Building Trades. We got between 4-9% raises when the cost of living rose 8-12%. Tim Twomey and Gerry Hipps (SEIU bureaucrats) gave up our right to strike.

We started a caucus in Local 400 and tried to change things. We made some headway and lost some ground. We ran for office, got 1/4 of the vote, and got kicked out of Local 400 into our "own Welfare Union," Local 535. That meant that 200 of us were separated from 8,000 members in Local 400. In 535 we fought Forced Work and could organize on a state level. We tried to get a Joint Council in the four SEIU Locals with representation from the ranks in order to have a chance to meet rank-and-filers in Local 400 and the Hospital Union Local 250.

We leafletted General Hospital before work and found hatred of Tim Twomey comparable to our hatred of bureaucrats John Jeffrey and Gerry Hipps. We made alliances, drank beer, nourished spirits and shared visions. We wanted to build a caucus in each local, kick out the bureaucrats, establish democratic structures and procedures, use the unions' resources to get real contracts, and learn to defend them by militant mass actions, link up with other militants in the Labor Movement, stop AIFLD monies going to Nixon and worldwide juntas who murder our fellow and sister workers, stop the Vietnam War other imperialist actions, increase social programs, work out a plan for full employment, end discrimination against all minorities and women. All this by pushing the unions to organize a Labor Party which would bring down the Nixon government like the Miners in England brought down the Tories, — and then on to socialism! Workers' control of the whole enchilada! And in our lifetime!

Why did we have such a hard time making the first step? Why don't we still have a contract here in "union" town?" Even in Marin County they have a contract, flexible hours, and a caseload maximum. (My caseload literally tripled when I was there!) Why didn't SSEU get a contract, get a dental plan, get caseloads reduced or even agitate for an end to the Vietnam War among workers outside DSS? An SSEUer told me, and that says it all: "We don't tackle the big issues because we're too small."

Well, in the SEIU we did tackle the big issues. An extra $30 a month the SEIU got made a difference in my life. SSEU scabs didn't turn the raises down as dirty pieces of AFL silver! Eventually Local 400 came out against the war in Vietnam and defended Angela [Davis] and the [Black] Panthers. A stand by 8,000 paved the way for other unions to take public stands against the government. On the other hand, yes, we were limited in what we were able to do because of the stranglehold of the bureaucracy and its politics of supporting the Democratic Party.

This is my main point: I think we could have successfully fought the SEIU bureaucracy in Local 400 if we had 400 unified workers instead of 200 and then 100 struggling in the SEIU while those in SSEU were getting their rocks off on radical highs but changing very little. SSEU in New York City (the model) did separate from the mainstream union movement, but it organized itself and got back inside the AFL-CIO. I never wanted to wear a see-through blouse, and I prefer skirts to jeans. What I wanted and we all needed was a contract with caseload limits, more workers, a dental plan and resources and jobs for our clients. For a start!

SSEU was a diversion, an interesting precursor to the '70s "Me generation." If those 2-300 people had been as interested in communicating and organizing among 18,000 other city workers whose main concern was their working conditions and not their lifestyles and own heads — then we'd be in a hell of a better position now!

If we had had a rank and file takeover of a union of 8,000 in 1970-72 what would have changed? For one, Local 29, OPEU in Oakland had a takeover in a union of 5,000 in the mid-sixties. They were isolated and had to buck two trusteeships and hostility from the Alameda County Central Labor Council (which continues to this day). They made sweeping democratic changes, took part in the movements against the war, in defense of Blacks, and the women's movement, but they were under incredible pressure to compromise. One other large rank and file local in the area would have been an enormous support for them. Local 250 has had caucuses rise and fall for 15 years. Local 400 could have inspired them to keep at it. Local 400 could have supported the drive to organize clericals instead of firing every good Business Agent. We could have instituted elected Business Agents and picked them ourselves!

Rank and file control of a large union could have made a difference as far as organizing other workers in SF and winning protection for them, for influencing the rest of the labor movement and society in general. The ranks controlled SSEU, but they were small and basically ineffectual. We needed (in the Welfare Department) to link up with the thousands of our sisters and brothers in Locals 400 and 250. That's where they were. It wasn't and still isn't easy. There is no shortcut or real alternative, like a better international or no international. Otherwise we're starting from scratch, like much of the New Left likes to do, and discard 100 years of experience along with the bureaucrats.

We've come some distance from the days of the Triangle Shirt Workers, sweatshops, the 16 hour day, and child labor. And it wasn't done by individuals. It was through the sweat of collective effort. We've come a long way from the direct militancy of the Wobblies and the unifying sweep of the early CIO.

Judy Erickson was correct. The AFL-CIO is business unionism and is sleeping with the bosses. But where is SSEU's strategy for "taking it over?" (For that matter where is SLEUTH) The Democratic Party controls SF Welfare just as it controls City Hall and the leadership of Local 400. They made a recent decision to lay off 350 Welfare workers due to Reagan's cuts which affect Medi-Cal. All SSEU could do was "unmask authority" and "feel confident in its own ideas." (Smoking a joint will do that!) Understanding and confidence only really matter when they aid us in changing the things that oppress us, especially if they're the "big issues."

In the SEIU we had a strategy, but not enough people then. SSEU had people (in Welfare) but their only strategy was for small changes. SMALL CHANGES MAKE US FEEL BETTER BUT THE BIG CHANGES ARE CRUCIAL FOR OUR SURVIVAL!

Local 400 now has a caucus that is in a position to challenge the current bureaucrat, Pat Jackson. A new, larger caucus is developing in Local 250. There have been two rank and file takeovers of SEIU locals in Massachusetts recently with a combined membership of 17,000. Workers can and are reclaiming their own unions. This will aid the unorganized workers to organize in new ways that can bypass much of the bureaucratic garbage that has held us back so long. Hopefully we all can learn from past mistakes, and at the same time be inspired by our smallest victories!

I hope this discussion continues because it's critical to office workers. How do we organize? Spontaneously, In small groups at each work site, or do we join with OPEU, SEIU, and AFSCME to be able to take on wider issues like the need to turn the defense budget into the social services budget, to defend undocumented workers, to run labor candidates instead of voting for the lesser of the bosses' evils, as well as do a good job on our own immediate issues.

If we choose the unions we have a struggle against the bureaucracy. If we choose spontaneous networking, we of necessity limit ourselves to some of our own immediate issues. I think we need nationwide structures to even deal with the banks and insurance companies, as well as the support from all of the working class, Including labor, minority and women's groups. But within the larger structures we need a rank and file democracy which encourages the most creative tactics, like the mass grievances and agit prop utilized by SSEU.

—"Dolly Debs"
UNION AND PROUD!

Weelll HeeellIllooooo Dolly,

Thank you for your response to the article on the SEIU/SSEU controversy. First, there are a couple of points of historical disagreement: Burt Alpert (exSSEUer) claims that it was due to the direct action of SSEU members that the current grievance procedure was established (not, as you assert, as a result of the contractual bargaining of SEIU), one which allows workers to represent themselves in hearings and call witnesses and introduce evidence as they see fit, rather than leaving it up to union representatives to "handle it."

Another point of disagreement lies in your assertion that the SSEU was unconcerned with working conditions, in particular that they did nothing about ever-growing caseloads. As mentioned in the article, the SSEU led a symbolic "case-dumping" to protest the increasing caseloads, and throughout The Rag Times and Dialog there are numerous articles and opinions that dealt directly with a myriad of problems and issues related to working conditions. In fact, you say yourself that the SSEU tended to focus on immediate problems at the expense of the "big issues." "SMALL CHANGES MAKE US FEEL BETTER BUT THE BIG CHANGES ARE CRUCIAL FOR OUR SURVIVAL!"

So you say, and this would seem to be the main theme of your critique of SSEU, i.e. that it didn't attempt to deal with the "big issues." According to you, the SEIU did tackle the big issues, which led to a $30/month raise ($75 in contemporary dollars), a public stand against the Vietnam war, and support of the openly pro-Soviet Union Angela Davis. I think it a bit odd that you could term these significant accomplishments. I know people who get equally miniscule raises and don't think it improves their lives at all. Anyway, how long did it last before it was eroded by inflation?

In other parts of your letter, you give the impression that the "big issues crucial to our survival" are approximately as follows:

1. Health plans, dental plans, paid vacations, and grievance procedures

2. Getting "real contracts"

3. "increase social programs and work out a plan for full employment"

4. Gaining power by establishing a "Labor Party" to take over the government and establish "socialism," which would presumably bring about all of the above

While I wouldn't dream of turning down improvements in my material conditions of existence, and at least some PWers feel they are important on-the-job struggles to engage in, these various issues, to my mind, aren't the "big" ones. In fact, I think you missed the point of the original SSEU and the article describing it: that the biggest issue is the way people deal with each other on a daily basis — the content of social interaction. After that, for us, the point is not to take power through a "Party" and increase the scope and importance of the welfare state, but rather to abolish both centralized power and the state.

You also neglect to deal with the substantive criticisms of both SEIU strikes and collectively bargained contracts laid out in my article through lengthy quotes from SSEU publications of the era. You prefer to call SSEUers "scabs" and to insist that it is the contract that could "limit caseloads, provide more workers, a dental plan, and resources and jobs for the welfare recipients." Frankly, I don't agree. The contract is basically only as strong as the workers it claims to represent. Owners and managers have flaunted contractual agreements countless times. The only real protection workers have is their collective ability and willingness to take action against their employers — which they can do with or without the contract. By now it should be painfully clear that the law is not the friend of the working class.

Then there's your other most important theme, the "what if" theme. What if a militant caucus had taken over the leadership of SEIU 400? Unfortunately, there are all too many examples of union "militants" who get into leadership positions and then proceed to act just like the people they replaced. A couple of good examples are the two leaders of national postal unions Biller and Sombrotto, who led wildcat strikes in 1970 but are now entrenched bureaucrats presiding over the automation of the postal service . Another good example is the "rank and file" militant Arnold Miller, who became head of the United Mine Workers on the strength of a r-a-f movement and then acted just like his predecessor.

Another example, which you cite in in your letter, is that of OPEU Local 29. This local, which still suffers (enjoys?) the enmity of the Alameda County Central Labor Council for its "independence," is the same local which stabbed OPEU local 3 (SF) in the back during the Blue Shield strike (1980-81) by settling for a contract which Local 3 had rejected and was striking to improve. This illustrates another point: no matter how well intentioned or militant a local is, most of the time they act as if they are in a vacuum and take actions which directly undercut other workers.

Unions are set up to do one basic thing: negotiate the terms and (sometimes) the conditions of the sale of their members' labor power. "Militant" leadership faces a myriad of institutional/legal constraints, not the least of which is their isolation in one occupational grouping, geographic area, or nation-state. Invariably, this leads to compromise with the basic setup. Even if a situation existed where a highly motivated, active group of workers abolished paid leadership positions and maintained direct control over their own struggles, it would ultimately be absorbed by the system unless a broader horizontal network between different workers and job-sites developed. And even within such a network, new tactics, strategies and goals would have to be developed.

Somehow you equate doing away with obsolete and oppressive union internationals with the abandonment of 100 years of experience. Union internationals, all of them as far as I know, are in the business of keeping workers' struggles as isolated as possible and focused on issues that can be most easily accommodated by the status quo. In fact, one could argue that union internationals (and the vast majority of locals, perhaps with rare exceptions) are among the primary institutions that have evolved in this society to obscure the connections between the "big issues" and the "little issues" of people's daily lives.

What's more, you assume. that spontaneous networking necessarily limits the nature of workers' struggles to immediate issues, and that this is inadequate. Obviously we disagree on this too. I think that if people are challenging the immediate issues that affect their lives, they will usually find themselves facing the big questions, i.e. the questions of authority, decision-making, and a society based on coercion enforced by the money system.

The overall thrust of your criticisms of the SSEU seems to be that the members should have been less interested in their daily lives. Instead, you argue that they should have joined SEIU Local 400 (even though they were kicked out for being too active on their own behalf), learned to "discipline" themselves by reducing the "chaos" of unlimited positions and ideas on every subject, and directed their energies toward establishing a "labor government" in as many jurisdictions as possible.

You assert that in order to take on the wider issues it is necessary to join OPEU, SEIU, or AFSCME, when it seems obvious that those are the very organizations least interested in seeing workers organizing themselves for things other than union-sponsored demands or candidates. Nationwide structures are useless unless people are taking action that requires coordination on that basis, or (hopefully) on an international basis. Establishing the structure before people are moving to take control over their own lives is a simple recipe for a new bureaucracy, just as oppressive and irrelevant as all the ones we're saddled with now.

Yes, the discussion on how to organize is crucial for office workers, and for the rest of the workforce throughout the world. Organizational forms that depend on the autonomous strength of groups of workers on the job are what we should be seeking, not forms that depend on lawyers, accountants, and bureaucrats. It seems to me that we should be more concerned with enunciating as many visions as possible of directions to move in, in terms of new ways to organize society as a whole, rather than merely trying to exhort people to defend what little they've got.

True in sports, but even truer in class war, the best defense is a strong offense, And in a time of deteriorating social and material conditions, the best offense is the most diverse and varied one, keeping the authorities guessing about what will happen next — unions don't provide such dynamic possibilities, but autonomous groups of workers, taking action as they see fit, do. Processed World aspires to be a part of such a movement.

For Workers' Autonomy,
Lucius Cabins

Dear PW,

As I'm writing this I'm overhearing live coverage of the peace demonstrations in NY and SF. It's exciting to hear how many people are out. But it's depressing to hear the old sixties peace leaders and other old guard leader types calling for the old basic involvement in the electoral system. Does anyone really believe that works anymore? I think just the old guard sixties lib-radical types believe that. I wish Barry Commoner and Joan Baez would explain just when we ever get to vote on whether we want nukes or nuke power in the first place. We can't vote against nuke war, the best we can do is vote for an initiative (non-binding) asking Mr. Reagan please to consider not wiping us in a nuclear war. But that seems to be all I hear coming from the radio — that and old Linda Ronstadt tunes... and mothers whining about saving their babies from fallout (for happy, productive lives as cogs in capitalist-electoral society).

—W., LA